It's been a while coming, but I'm sorry to say I've had to say goodbye to my dear beloved Fidgetstick.
For those of you who were unaware, Fidgetstick was a social network for adventurous people. At it's peek, we had >10,000 members, >30,000 monthly unique visitors, thousands of videos and photos of all sorts of adventure sports activities and a product database of >10k products.
It was born from a time, after my dad passed away, when I resolved to do two things -
1) Deal with my problems in a way that didn't resort to drinking and smoking, instead, embrace my love of sports and in particular those which were exciting, thrilling and got the blood pumping instead of clogged in the veins.
2) Start thinking about how I might take the leap from full time employment, into starting and building my own business.
It was back in 2008, before smartphones had really become so prevalent and before anyone really focussed on "mobile first" and building "apps". Actually, my initial idea was to live a life going around the world taking part in activities, reviewing them and writing about them on a blog. That would have been the ultimate life hack.
And, that's how it started. It got too expensive to pay to take part in these activities, so I'd approach activity providers with my win-win pitch.
"I'll come and take part in one of your sessions. I'll fit around your capacities, so I'm not taking up the space of a paying customer. I'll write a review, which looks like this. I may do some videos which look like these... and I won't charge you". Ha
So, in 18 months, I became a qualified Day Skipper having never set foot on a yacht before, I took a kitesurfing course, I flew a microlight, I skydived with the Red Devils, I jumped down canyons in Scotland, climbed up cliffs in Devon, I snowboarded in the Alps, I wakeboarded, I kayaked, I mountainbiked... you name it, I did it.
And, I did as I said. I wrote reviews, people read them and the companies liked them. They were honest, critical when appropriate and credit was given where credit was due.
The blog soon turned into a directory of places, centres and shops and the content bred conversation and community. We quickly became a social network for adventurous people.
This was something wonderful and at that time, I thought well, if this could work it'd be pretty cool. So, I quit my job and with a little financial help from a friend, gave myself 6 months to see if I could shape it into a real business.
When I started, I felt I needed a team in place from the outset - people who valued the same things as me, in this case, a shared passion for adventure sports. But, that had different skills and so Joe Wright, a guy I worked with at my previous company became our Creative Director and Jon Stuart, who was recommended to us, became our Technical Director. As I had no real technical or creative skills of note, other than a hobbyist tendancy to dabble in everything, I felt this trifector (with me as the ideas guy, the business guy, whatever you want to call it) would be the dream team.
Lesson 1: The Right Team
I stand by the general principal today. A tech guy and a design guy to support me, who is borderline competetent and both and sits in a murky middle ground is the right, albeit sometimes incredibly painful way to go. But, you need people in a startup who get startups. Or at least have the startup mentality.
It became clear, unfortunately, after I took the plunge, that the other guys were not going to be coming in quite as balls-deep. Actually, there seemed to be a real sense of entitlement for the fairly limited input so far and a need to pay wages. These weren't going to be startup co-founders. I don't disagree with the drive to find suitable business models, heck, we weren't short of them, but we needed the efforts of the team to implement a product in parallel.
Since that time, I have long been on the look out for the right type of partners in the future. When I met Tim, my co-founder at mysparebrain, something clicked with me. Sure, there's the drive to create a business, a drive to earn and be rewarded. But the most compelling trait of all is that Tim just wants to solve problems, build things and invent the uninvented. He'd be doing that regardless and I have immense respect and admiration for that.
Lesson 2: Timing is Crucial
In hindsight, we were always going to struggle with our project. The adventure sports and outdoor industry is a little behind the curve when it comes to the adoption of online technologies - you can see this in all the myriad of mid 90's forum sites which are still the lifeblood of conversation among sports specific groups.
But, the biggest thing was mobile. GPS, apps and HD video / high res stills. For what we wanted to do, we were too early, the hardware wasn't ready and distribution wasn't in place.
Social was another issue. Facebook was actually still finding it's rightful place and in particular building on top of Facebook was very nascent. Twitter was unheard of. Understanding exactly how niche social networks fit in and how to leverage instead of compete with generic social networks was a big barrier and some of hypotheses were very wrong.
When I was trying to raise money to take the new Fidgetstick, 4 months into my initial 6 months, it was the back end of 2009. UK investor appetite for a first-time, non-technical entrepreneur operating in a space which was perceived to be "hobbyist" and "lifestyle", was lets say, non-existent.
There are companies like Tribesports doing exactly what we were doing 4 years ago, but with the benefit of a more ready marketplace and a more accomodating investor pool (raised $3.2m so far) and I wish them all the best. I sat down with their CEO Steve Reid to talk about my experiences and found that many of the problems I was trying to solve are clearly on their agenda too.
Lesson 3: Start More Specific
Now, I know when you look at what I'm up to now, it's going to be hard to say I learned my lesson on this one, but bear with me. We were a social network for adventurous people. That was purposfully vague. It was geographically open, in a quest for world dominance. What it meant was, in reality, there was no really strong bond between us an potential members. Sure, they say "hey, I'm adventurous". But, they get there and then what? What do they talk about? They want something of high quality about what they're into at that point in time to engage them. With our resources, we could never do enough to seed that ourselves. It has to come from the crowd and it can only come from the crowd if they're engaged by the subject from the off.
Does it matter that the same user will be interested in something else in a few weeks or a few months? No, not really, what matters is now. Can they find what they want right now? Nope, well, then I'm off see ya. And more to the point, it's unlikely I'll be back.
So, for those of you with a big vision, and ours was pretty big (as in vague), pin it down, find the point and push it, test it, see if it has legs and build from it. If not, find a new point. But find a point, not a plate...
Lesson 4: It's Going to Be OK
At the end of the day, trying and failing is OK. In Europe and in the UK, that sometimes doesn't feel like it, but it really is OK. I just have to look at where I am now, what I have learned, what I have been through and I feel OK straight away.
Potential investors I was talking to at the time of trying to raise didn't buy the idea, but they liked me and how I went about things, such that they invited to me to help solve problems with their existing portfolio companies. Everything from business strategy, design, technical development & project management, SEO, social media strategy. After I ran out of cash, I didn't need to go back into the big dumb company world, I could carry on, earning and bootstrapping my way through figuring out what was next and how do I make that work.
My technical and creative knowledge has improved immensely. From a totally novice, to technical consultant and project manager, I've delivered numerous custom development projects for clients. I'm developing my first iOS app for childrens music. I'm a capable (if a little unorthodox) graphic designer. I have a team of people in Moldova and work with others from the Phillipines, India, US, Egypt, Vietnam and Nepal.
And now, I am working on MySpareBrain. I'm dedicated to creating a product that helps us all manage our complex lives, with the vast amounts of information, apps, tools, resources and services that we interact with everyday. I'm working with equally passionate and highly skilled (much more than me) people, such as Tim and Alfredo and I am a better person for it.
So, I guess what I'm trying to say is. Hooray for failure!!!